In-Depth: State Cuts Will Affect What You See On Stage; Theaters Pledge To Fight Back

By Bill Hirschman

Some South Florida theaters are scrapping some of what they plan to put on stage this season or next. Some are leaving support positions unfilled. Some plan smaller cast shows. Some have sidelined plans for growth. A few are weighing whether to dip into rainy day funds. One theater plans to reuse last year’s set this winter. One will replace a full summer musical with something less expensive.

Across the region, theaters are scrambling to cope with an unexpected 90 percent slash in state funding last spring – hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This fall, some theater champions are committed to fighting back by organizing patrons and leading citizens to influence lawmakers.

No company is planning to shut down, according to interviews this summer with theater leaders and arts advocates; the shriveled grants are only one of several revenue streams. But the surprising loss unnerved many and is causing nearly everyone to explore stopgaps that may or may not affect what patrons see.

“Everybody’s fourth quarter funding went off the cliff,” said Jaye Abbate, CEO of ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale and an arts activist.

The theatrical community’s reaction ranges from shock to anger.

“It’s people who value the idea of a dollar more than a value of idea of a life,” said Margaret Ledford, artistic director of City Theatre – a sentiment following co-founder Susan Westfall calling the lawmakers “Philistines.”

Actors Playhouse Executive Producing Director Barbara Stein terms the cuts “an abuse of public funding” that wastes the state’s years of investment building up the arts in Florida.

REVIEWING THE SITUATION: NUMBERS

The grants are “not a big number in the state budget even at its highest level. It’s a fraction of a percentage,” said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

The applicants’ full requests before the cuts equaled four-tenths of one percent of the record-setting $88.7 billion state budget. After the cuts, the final amount approved dropped to three-one hundredths of one percent.

Funding was cut between 89 and 91 percent state-wide as well as in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Broward counties, a figure mitigated only slightly by fewer individual applications being approved at all.

The statewide allocation for all arts organizations not just theaters for general program support dropped from $24.9 million to $2.6 million to be spread among 489 groups.

Florida nosedived from 10th per capita in arts funding in the nation to a projected 43rd, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

— Broward funding for all arts programs dropped to $208,000 from $1.9 million.

— Miami-Dade: $560,000 from $5.1 million.

— Palm Beach: $267,000 from $3.1 million.

Cuts to specific theaters were equally profound. Among long-time recipients:

— Florida Grand Opera: $9,600 from $47,000.

— Maltz Jupiter Theatre: $9,700 from $47,400.

— Palm Beach Dramaworks: $9,800 from $48,100.

— Actors Playhouse: $9,800 from $48,000.

According to Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers last spring, the drop reflected unexpected priorities: dealing with Hurricane Irma, opioid abuse and – occurring late in the budget process — school safety after the Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.

But critics are skeptical because the allocation marked the second set of major cuts to arts funding in two consecutive years, plus some of the cuts were made before the Parkland shooting. State-wide funding dropped to $2.6 million from $32.5 million two years ago.

— Broward dropped over the two years from $4.1 million to $208,000

— Miami-Dade from $7.8 million to $560,000

— Palm Beach from nearly $5.2 million to a little bit more than $267,000.

— Dramaworks got $9,856 compared to $92,563 two years earlier, and $150,000 four years earlier. GableStage dropped to $9,962 from $94,424 two years earlier. Over five years Florida Children’s Theatre dropped to $6,184 from $76,000.

WHY

The “true” explanations are relatively simple, arts leaders said.

First, lawmakers and most constituents who buttonhole them at home simply do not put a priority on arts funding. That’s partly because they don’t value how it enhances the quality of life, they said. But it is also because they remain persistently blind to the arts’ economic impact on salaries, expenditures, nearby businesses, tourism — and making the area attractive to firms considering moving to the region.

Second, a large number of lawmakers – especially key leaders – come “from very small rural counties in the state that didn’t really have the kind of connection with arts programs and arts institutions in their home towns,” said Janet Erlick, executive artistic director of Florida Children’s Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.

Sue Ellen Beryl

Arguing further are Sue Ellen Beryl, managing director, and William Hayes, producing artistic director, of Palm Beach Dramaworks, who have aggressively courted policymakers for years. “The real bottom line is they don’t understand the value of the arts. It’s not important to them. The people who are worried about guns and algae are loud. And (lawmakers) get a lot of emails and voices complaining about that. There’s not enough of an outcry from people saying the arts makes a difference in their lives,” Beryl said.

Spring added, “So, at end of the session when push comes to shove… no one stood up for” the arts. Funding for the 2014-2015 period reached a crest because the legislature had more sympathetic leaders “who grew up with the arts,” said Sherron Long, president of the Florida Cultural Alliance and a leading lobbyist for the arts.

Janeen Mason is another prominent activist who has served on the government-appointed Florida Council on Arts and Culture that scores the initial applications. “There are other things that need funding, too, and I get that. Veterans need care. People need homes. But if we don’t have arts, we may as well be living in Kabul.”

Often, the competition is a powerful legislator who wants a special pork project; that money usually comes from the overall pot of money that the arts pull from, Long said.

But treatment of the arts like a poor relation comes from the top. Some like Mason and Spring specifically blame Scott who has the power to not only slice state recommendations to the legislature but who can veto line item appropriations.

Finally, some conservative policy makers simply don’t feel it’s government’s responsibility to subsidize the arts, said Joseph Adler, producing artistic director of GableStage.

ART ISN’T EASY: COPING

The exact depth of the damage is still being assessed.

“Cultural groups operate in delicate balances of revenue sources. If one drops out, it’s extremely difficult to compensate. There has to be a consequence,” Spring said.

Theater leaders are anxiously casting about for solutions, some of which will affect what some patrons see on some stages.

Janet Erlick

“…there are certain productions and experiences that we love to introduce our students to that are not going to be giant ticket sales, such as more straight plays, such as Shakespeare,” Erlick said. Now “I can’t put anything in our season that isn’t going to sell big tickets because I don’t have that extra buffer to support the artistic work that might be the same thing as a mainstream box office hit.”

City Theatre in Miami, whose grant dropped $25,000 over the past two years, will not mount a full-length play as it did with Building the Wall this past season. Its nationally-known Citywrights conference for playwrights will be “on a strict diet,” Ledford said. Resourceful steps will include reusing last season’s Winter Shorts set for the coming annual edition because it is generic and “festive enough” to serve perfectly well with a few specific additions.

Dramaworks remains solid financially as it has throughout its existence. But the cuts have prompted imaginative rethinking for the following season.

Its leaders had been considering ending its expensive fully-staged summertime musical, which had not been as financially successful as they hoped, and replacing it with, perhaps, modest concerts. Now, with the loss of the state money, the decision has been finalized as a fiscally responsible choice, although the precise replacement has not been settled.

The West Palm Beach company is focused on ensuring that changes do not undermine its reputation with patrons. “We lost the equivalent of three salaries. We have to make significant cutbacks….” Beryl said. “…Without compromising the quality,” Hayes added immediately.

One idea is to shorten the length of the main season (and accompanying overhead) by reducing the down time between shows in the 2019-2020 season.

Barbara Stein

Actors Playhouse has always rented out its auditoriums, but Stein will pursue that source more aggressively. Already, she has penciled in a return tour of the musical comedy Waistwatchers. She said, “We don’t normally rent to companies doing English speaking things because we have a kind of competition with them. We don’t want our brand to be confused. But we have a slot in December and January and why not?  Give us a chance to grow our audiences and crossover.”

Some companies have reserves to dip into, Long said, and at least two companies interviewed are weighing that short-term option.

Everyone interviewed said they were avoiding cutting staff, although some did not rule it out.  But some planned to leave positions open and have staff take on more duties in the short-term.

Producers were especially opposed to hiking ticket prices. But several already had been restructuring their fees. Actors Playhouse is creating a four-tiered pricing matrix with more money being charged for the best seats and less for the ones further back in the house.

Of course, one effort most theaters cited involves seeking increased contributions from new or existing patrons. Dramaworks asked each of its board of directors for an extra $5,000 contribution.

Of a broader concern, cuts and the uncertainty they generate have poured cold water on plans to expand operations, Westfall and Stein said.

“The truth is we were on a nice trajectory; incoming state funding (was) offering a kind of a cushion to have security to begin expanding again, especially around our educational stuff,” Westfall said.

The catch now is that no one has any idea whether the cuts will stay in place or even worsen. Therefore, planning focuses as much on coping with cuts long-term as well. In fact, since the cuts came after most theaters had announced their 2018-19 seasons in subscription appeals, some steps cannot be implemented for another 12 months.

Administrators also abandoned budgeting assumptions. “It used to be that there was a dedicated funding stream that was a guaranteed line item in the state budget,” Erlick said. “So that was something that you could budget for… as you were making hiring decisions, program growth decisions and looking at your future.”

But she realized its unreliability a couple of years ago. “I wasn’t as organizationally caught off guard or hit so hard or surprised as some other people who haven’t been in that program as long and did not realize how volatile a funding stream it was. I can imagine (for them) it would be devastating.”

But there are few options if special fund-raising efforts flag. “You cut services or you fire employees,” said Mason, an artist-author in Stuart. “We are as trimmed down about as far as we can be and yet we are still making magic. We are very proud of that but every single person working there is doing the work of ten.”

One unexpected result is a growing reluctance among theaters to apply for the state grants at all because of the labor intensive hours invested in composing a comprehensive and compelling document, Stein said.

The meager state grants also undercut theaters’ applications to other funding groups, which wonder why the state doesn’t see the applicant as worthy of significant support. “It’s demeaning to our industry,” Ledford said.

In fact, in the past, artistic directors and managers flew to Tallahassee to lobby for their grants in person during in a two-day grant review hearing, Adler said. Now, they reinforce their case by phone at the hearings.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

All of those actions are patching holes in the boat. The real challenge is how to keep it from happening again, Long said. At meetings of the Florida Professional Theatres Association and the monthly phone conference of the Florida Cultural Alliance, theater leaders share long- and short-term solutions.

The key, everyone agreed, is a concerted, concentrated, coordinated campaign to educate the politicians and the public why the arts matter – both from a quality of life standpoint and its proven worth as a significant economic engine.

Advocates wax eloquently about the first aspect, concerned that the average Floridian doesn’t think the quality, scope and availability of the arts affects them.

“We have to dispel stereotypes, that culture is just for the wine and cheese crowd, that rich people should take care of rich people,” Spring said.

Erlick is especially passionate about the need to erase “the disconnect between the organizations and the vast majority of individuals whose personal life” are affected by the arts in subtle ways daily. “How we do we bridge that gap so it doesn’t feel like it’s someone else’s problem…. How do we make people understand… they are having an arts moment?”

Yet, while advocates want elected officials and the business leaders they consult to appreciate the aesthetic need, they expect more success by hammering at a pragmatic rationale they have used before.

“We always find you can’t be mushy about it, about how you feel. It has to be, ‘Oh, we’re supporting this many jobs and we’re creating this much economic impact.’ They’re not attaching it to quality of life. They want (us) to attach it to hard numbers,” Beryl said.

The nonprofit Americans for the Arts reported that Florida’s arts industry generates $4.68 billion of economic activity statewide a year, including $2.29 billion by nonprofit arts-and-culture organizations. That translates into 132,366 jobs and $3.35 billion in income. On top of that, the local and state revenue benefits from $492.3 million in local and state taxes.

“It’s not just the salaries of the artists and the people who work here; it supports all of those waiters and waitresses working around the theater and the parking lot attendants, babysitters and everybody else. Plus the taxes that they get from people taking the roads and the tolls and everything else,” Beryl said.

A vibrant cultural scene also is a factor in attracting new businesses and industries evaluating competing locations, Abbate said.

But the argument has not always taken hold. In 2016, the Palm Beach County Commission removed the arts from the list of beneficiaries of a proposed sales tax, even though they had been told of its worth to the economy.

Indeed, some arts advocates spoke this summer of having approached South Florida businesses and organizations for help after the cuts and leaving meetings with little or nothing but sympathy.

Isolated reactions in other parts of the state have been more promising. The Gobioff Foundation set up the Tampa Bay Arts Bridge fund-raising campaign dubbed “disaster arts relief fund” through the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. The fund started with a $100,000 donation by the Gobioff Foundation with a match from the Vinik Family Foundation. But the toal now is only $4,000 higher.

FIGHTING BACK

So the champions are committed to educating and winning over elected officials, the influential citizenry they listen to, and the ordinary citizen who will write them letters tying their vote to the politicians’ support of the arts.

Some theaters have pointedly invited lawmakers to openings night where patrons can chat up the decision-makers.

Last week, as state grant evaluators met at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart to score applications, advocates arranged for tours and events in Martin and northern Palm Beach counties to give the evaluators first-hand contact with the applicants including a reception at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre where producers and champions were invited to schmooze.

Spurring patrons and potential patrons to independently contact their legislator is crucial. “I think this isn’t as much about lobbyists. This is about people talking to people,” Spring said.

To that end, Dramaworks is stressing to its well-connected patrons how ticket sales pay at best for half an operating budget. It put an ad in its program depicting half a seat. “You know, do you want to sit in a whole chair? Even with our full price ticket, you’re only paying for half of your chair,” Beryl said.

Hayes plans to increase his pre-show speeches from opening night to many performances this season, drumming up active support.

Dramaworks sent out a personalized missive to its 10,000-person email list a few months ago explaining the situation and it plans a second in November. The results of the first mailing after the cuts was encouraging, Beryl said. “People started sending us more money and people are contacting me to say, ‘We weren’t going to give this year but now we’re going to amp it up more.’… We got many, many emails thanking us for bringing this our attention.”

The statewide arts organizations have taken similar actions recently and in the past. The question no one can answer is just how much response has been generated. Do arts patrons, influential citizens, artistic directors, even their boards of directors actually write emails, make phone, question candidates or buttonhole politicians at events? Most people interviewed said the immediate appeal generates positive feedback to the theaters, but everyone was coy about what happens after that.

Adler said of one e-blast to his patrons, “We provide them with (lawmakers’) e-mail addresses and the statement they should send…. Whether people did it, I don’t know.”

Mason has created a page to provide factual ammunition https://fundthealist.org.

One complication in long-term lobbying is that the elected people making decisions change nearly every year.  “The good is that we get new blood in there, the bad is that they have to be retrained. It’s like herding cats,” Mason said,

Long added, “It’s a fight every single year. With term limits, you’ve got a lot of people who once they understand the program and are supportive, they get turned out and you start the process all over again. It’s very, very frustrating.”

But advocacy organizations and some activist theaters have committed to ramping up efforts to build one-on-one relationships with elected officials and persuading their colleagues to do the same, Long said. These efforts will kick into high gear after the election.

“You can’t wait until the legislature is in session,” Mason said. “Too many decisions have already been made. Committees are announced in November and December and we need to be on it when that happens.”

Theatrically artistic souls, who are inherently shy about raising money, also seem reticent about romancing policy and legislative leaders. Mason and others are urging advocates including theaters’ board members and major philanthropists to make appointments with their hometown legislators, especially after the mid-term elections.

“They need to make friends with people in politics because if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Mason said.

Still, like the protagonists of a play as it nears a climax, South Florida theater leaders remain optimistic about the future, in part because the grant recipients have been working for years to solidify their fiscal stability.

Westfall recalled earlier challenges. “City Theatre survived the recession by cutting programming — and then rebuilding. So if we take programs away, it’s not like they won’t be back.  It’s not scary. We have survived.”

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